As the daughter of a World Bank official, Paula Mans was accustomed to living abroad. For three years of her early childhood, her family lived in Tanzania; they spent her junior year in high school in Mozambique while she attended a private school in nearby Swaziland. She spent a semester of her junior year in college abroad in Argentina.
So she thought she knew what being a foreigner was like, but Brazil surprised her – because she didn't feel like an outsider when she first traveled there.
"I've traveled to many places, but I've never felt so immediately included. From the first day I arrived, nobody looked at me as if I didn't belong there. The people are the friendliest people you'll ever meet."
She should feel at home, then, during her year in Salvador, Brazil, as a William J. Fulbright Fellow. The prestigious Fulbright Fellowships were created by Congress in order to “increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries." The U.S. State Department administers the program.
Mans, a Spanish major who plans to pursue a Ph.D. in anthropology or African-American studies, will spend her Fulbright year researching a community-based supplementary education program for girls in a favela—the Brazilian equivalent of a shantytown—in Salvador.
The program Mans will study, called Bahia Street, supplements the girls' education in public schools with tutoring in all basic subjects including math, science and reading. In addition to this standard curriculum, Bahia Street provides programs in self-defense, health care, sexual education, art therapy, Afro-Brazilian culture, and a series of programs that focus on issues of violence and inequality.
The goal of Bahia Street is to instill in its students the knowledge and leadership skills needed to break the cycle of poverty and violence that dominate their favela communities.
"A lot of the instruction is focused on how to protect yourself," Mans explains, "because it's very dangerous for girls in the shantytowns. But it also encourages them to complete their education so that they will have options other than prostitution, which is the only job available to many women there. "
"I read a statistic that said that 13.6% of black Brazilians complete elementary school while only 2.1% will graduate from high school. I want to see if community-based programs like Bahia Street increase girls' chance of success in that environment."
Teaching English will be an entrée into the community for Mans, who hopes to interview students, teachers, and, if possible, students' families, about the effects the school has on their lives.
Mans' parents spend about three months of the year in Brazil, and she says she has become "fairly proficient" in Portuguese by visiting them. She also undertook three weeks of Portuguese study in Brazil that were funded by the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Program, an initiative of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation that aims to "increase diversity in the faculty ranks of institutions of higher learning" by providing support to "minority students, and others with a demonstrated commitment to eradicating racial disparities, who will pursue Ph.D.s in core fields in the arts and sciences."
The Mellon-Mays program also sponsored Mans' research on Afro-Argentinian literature, which Mans characterizes as an understudied topic.
So are the experiences of women and girls in the favelas of Salvador, she says.
"While there is a lot of information about the favela situation, it tends to have a very masculine focus—there's very little information about the experiences of women and their struggles. And Bahia [the Brazilian state of which Salvador is the capital] is very underrepresented in the literature," she explains.
"Most of the tourism focuses on Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paolo, cities in the South. But Bahia, which is the poorest state in Brazil, is also its cultural center," she says. "Most of the national foods and cultural products like samba and capoeira that we identify with Brazil originated in Bahia. The tourist industry projects a glamorous image of Afro-Brazilian culture without recognizing the struggles that this population goes through. I want to bring attention to that."
Posted 4/24/2008 by Claudia Ginanni